Last week, I found myself walking fields with some very awesome, very smart, very hard-working new farmers. I was in the Hudson Valley, where we have a “cluster” of Journeyperson farmers thanks to some generous funding from the New World Foundation’s Local Economies Project. There was an added effect I hadn’t anticipated, visiting three farms in close succession: I could see a few recurring themes (similar to what I talked about with Ben and Courtney a few weeks back) like the challenge of keeping good notes and records, like feeling limited by equipment, of wondering how to farm and recoup investments, of having enough income to save for bigger ideas and scaling-up infrastructure, of distributing food effectively to those who want it, etc. Of course there are a lot of common positives, that the farmers are finding solid guidance with very proactive and hands-on mentors, that they are indeed producing lots of good food, they are indeed finding eaters to purchase their food, and they are all finding joy in the daily success, despite the uncertainties. I thought I’d share a little about what each are up to:
Peter Harrington, Ten Barn Farm in Ghent, NY
Peter’s growing a lot of food–that was my first big takeaway! I of course was happy to see and munch on my first peas of the season (my odd travel schedule had me miss a few farmers’ markets at home), but could sense that Peter is producing much more food than he’s able to move at his current markets and through his small CSA membership. He’s learning (that’s the point, to accompany these farmers in their learning process) about how to spread the word to more likely buyers, and is finding out how to be flexible with late sign-ups. While the initial boost of income before a season helps the farmer make investments, a farmer like Peter might plant a good deal extra to protect against crop failure–that means that when things are going well or if not enough people signed up before he made a decision about how much to plant, he’s got an amazing, unsold harvest! Though Peter sells at nearby farmers’ markets, casual purchases are note the same kind of security as the support of a CSA. I promised I’d remind our readers that you can definitely still help him earn back his investment in materials and labor by signing up for his CSA, late! I reminded Peter that he should be flexible with the commitments, enough to give people a sense of CSA, but he shouldn’t let the logistics of prorated/short-term membership detract from his actual farming. So, the lesson is that he must keep good notes about planting, harvest, distribution and customer accounts and be firm in his limits with sales options.
Jalal Sabur, Sweet Freedom Farm
Jalal draws connections between growing food, youth empowerment and a better life for many more people than you’d think could be reached by the action of one farmer. Food that Jalal grows is added to other local farmers’ vegetables, eggs and fruit in a box that a person can purchase. The big bonus? Someone purchasing this box is part of the Victory Bus Ride CSA, which includes a ride from New York City to upstate correctional facilities. The price is less than other prison bus services, and it builds a community around healthy food and healthy lifestyles. Beyond his farm fence, Jalal works with youth at River City Gardens in Hudson specifically as a food system educator via Roots & Rebels. The focus of my visit with Jalal was hearing how these all combine into a unified vision (he’s still hammering out his “elevator pitch”), which he can market and gain support for. He explained some deep connections between the abolitionist movement and maple syrup (maple producers historically rejected slave labor), which is just one example of what he brings to the surface for youth, adults, and anyone who has a conversation about the food system with this great beginning farmer. Jalal has no equipment, which has made doing all this work especially challenging. Thankfully, many of nearby farming community friends and all the people he helps out are pitching in as they can. I hope you would also read more about this important work and see how you might be able to learn, get involved, and actively support farmer-led food justice projects.
John Agostinho, Fatstock Farm
This world of cute/funny farm animal videos (a world I’m happy to live in) hasn’t completely ruined my sense of wonder at watching a livestock farmer in action. John has a relationship with all the animals on his small multi-species farm. The sheep herd is one he’s slowly earning equity in: the first year he had the flock he made 1/3 of the investments, earned 1/3 of the income from the meat sales, and owns 1/3 of the remaining flock. This year, he’s a 2/3 investor-owner, and next year, the flock is entirely his. This is a simliar arrangement to what is called “sharemilking” and is very useful to transfer livestock and dairy farms to new hands–animals and good genetics are very expensive, so this allows a beginning farmer with the right knowledge and experience to get started much faster, with less initial investment. John also has lots of experience with pigs, and I was introduced to some very happy, very chatty (yes, chatty) pigs, including one about to give birth (I didn’t get to stay for that part of the day, though). Again, this farmer is thinking every day about how to best market his product; with meat, there is the added question of humane, USDA-inspected and accessible slaughter and processing facilities. John sells via a CSA model in conjunction with two farms that distribute in Queens, which helps reduce some of the logistical stress because he knows exactly what is sold, how many animals to process, and how it’s going to reach customers. Still, he is bound by regulations and the availability of infrastructure. This is a huge issue in the organic community at large, and is an acknowledged roadblock to success for small-scale organic meat farmers. Once the animal goes to slaughter, the farmer loses their control, so they must trust the facility and its practices. The type of slaughter facility, and subsequent processing facilities, determines how the farmer can sell their meat. If you’re interested in some simple, complete definitions about livestock slaughter facilities, I’ll direct you to the Cornell Small Farms slaughterhouse map. So, back to John at Fatstock Farm. I saw how John is attentive to the sheep in the field, plus got to watch Ella the sheepherding dog do what she is clearly always interested in doing–herd sheep! One got away, all the way back to the house, which was pretty funny to watch. Seemed like she wanted to hang out in the barn with her friends–John’s been keeping small groups in the barn on rotation so he can monitor and treat a hoof concern.
NOTE: The NOFA-NY Journeyperson Program is part of a multi-state project to support farmers in their first few years of independent farming, modeled off a highly successful program piloted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). We take on a few farmers per year for this program, and the applications open in the fall. Read more at www.nofany.org/jp!